Using Facebook Without Giving Up Privacy

Is it possible to be a passive user of Facebook? I want to read announcements relating to friends and colleagues, and maybe post comments, without building a profile with photos, a timeline and so on. I have managed perfectly well without joining, but occasionally miss useful information that is not available elsewhere. Eira

What’s known as “lurking” – being a member without actively participating – is very common. To quote Jakob Nielsen, “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.” This is known as the 1% rule, and it’s obviously a gross generalisation. Facebook’s participation levels appear to be much higher than that. We don’t know the number of lapsed or (literally) dead accounts, but in September 2018, Facebook reported 2.27 billion monthly active users (up 9.6% over the previous year) and almost 1.5 billion daily active users (up 9.3%), despite losing about 1 million users in Europe. While there’s no obligation to participate, there are much trickier questions about privacy and tracking.

What distinguishes Facebook from Twitter, Reddit, Metafilter and so on is that it is based on real identities, which are fundamentally public. While you can choose how much information you post on Facebook, and how widely you share it, your friends may already have given Facebook your email address as part of the “find friends” procedure. Some of them may also have posted images of you, mentioned you in comments, or linked to things you posted on other services. As a result, when you sign up, Facebook may already know who most of your friends are. This information may be about you, but it isn’t yours: it belongs to the people who shared it. Either way, any organisation that knows your real name can probably find out a lot about you. This was already obvious in 1999 when Sun’s Scott McNealy said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Minimal Facebooking

To sign up for a Facebook account, you need a name and a working email address or mobile phone number. You can use any name you are known by. However, if you run into a problem, you may have to provide an acceptable form of ID to verify it later. You will also be asked for your date of birth – because you have to be at least 13 years old to join – and your choice of gender. Both may be used for advertising purposes. After that, everything is optional. Facebook will want you to complete your new profile by uploading a mug shot and a cover photo, entering the names of schools or colleges you attended, where you live and so on. You are not obliged to do any of this. Your profile photo could be a cartoon character. However, there could be from dozens to thousands of people who have the same name as you. The more details you enter, the easier it will be for friends to find you. Next, to make the system work for you, you have to “friend” people you know. Facebook encourages you to upload your contacts book (see above). It’s much better to track people down one by one, though it is more work. And that’s it. When your friends post things on Facebook, they will appear in the news feed. You will also have a timeline under your name, which used to be your wall. You can’t get out of having these, but again, you don’t have to post anything to them.

Privacy settings

When you do post something, you can control who sees it by using each post’s settings menu (three dots), but it’s better to choose settings for your whole account. To do this, click the down-arrow on the far right of the blue heading bar, select Settings from the menu, and then Privacy. The main entry is “Who can see your future posts?” You probably won’t want to use Public, which means anyone on or off Facebook. Instead, limit visibility to friends, perhaps, or customise it. You can exclude by name anyone you don’t want to see something. You can also limit the range of people who can look you up using the email address and/or phone number you gave Facebook, though that can make it harder for friends to find you. Where it asks “Do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your profile?” Answer no.

You should also visit the ad preferences page and click on “Ad settings.” This lets you turn off adverts based on “data from partners” (external websites, not Facebook), and adverts on external websites based on your activities on Facebook. This removes the advantages of tracking you. Otherwise, Facebook could use the information that you visit, for example, car websites to show you car ads. You can also change “Ads that include your social actions” to “No one.” This stops Facebook from using your actions (signing up for events, using apps, making recommendations and so on) to promote them to your friends.

Finally, Facebook publicises birthdays. The setting is on your About page under “Contact and basic info.” Note that you can set different privacy levels for your date of birth and your year of birth. You could set both to “Only me” or just keep the year – and therefore your age – private. This description barely scratches the surface of the many ways you can manage your data. Facebook provides detailed control over your privacy, and how it can target you with the adverts that pay for its free service. The problem is that it would take many hours to find, understand and customise all the settings available. Understandably, most people just don’t care enough to make the effort when the only visible benefit may be seeing less appropriate advertisements.

Facebook disconnect

Facebook Connect or “Log in with Facebook” is an identity system that, conveniently, lets you log into other websites, play games and so on with your Facebook ID. While this saves creating a lot of different login names and passwords, it also lets Facebook know what you are doing away from Facebook. This isn’t a new idea, and Facebook’s tracking network is much smaller than Google’s, but it’s what drives the use of things like Ghostery, Privacy Badger, Disconnect.Me and Redmorph.

You can opt out of using the whole platform. This stops Facebook Connect from working, and disables all the apps and games that have been used by third parties to harvest user data. To do this, go to the Settings page and select “Apps and websites.” Scroll down to the Apps, Websites and Games section, click Edit and then select “Turn off.” I got some dire warnings when I did this a few years ago, but as you’re a new user, it shouldn’t affect anything. You can also limit Facebook tracking by running Facebook in a container in the Firefox browser.

It’s not just Facebook

Facebook explained in a blog post what sort of data it collects and how it does it. Obviously, it mentioned that other internet companies are doing exactly the same things. In fact, the main difference between Facebook and LinkedIn and some rivals is that most (but not all) of the personal information on Facebook and LinkedIn has been willingly contributed by users for their own purposes, rather than gathered by spying. Facebook has become the universal kicking boy partly because of its carelessness, and because its massive scale means its blunders can affect far more people, or even whole nations.

Ultimately, however, the problem is not Facebook but “surveillance capitalism:” the business model whereby users trade personal information for services instead of paying for them. As security expert Bruce Schneier wrote last year in a blog post on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, “for every article about Facebook’s creepy stalker behaviour, thousands of other companies are breathing a collective sigh of relief that it’s Facebook and not them in the spotlight. Because while Facebook is one of the biggest players in this space, there are thousands of other companies that spy on and manipulate us for profit.” For those of us with distant friends and family, Facebook is just too valuable to give up, and its replacement(s) might well be worse. It’s the whole system that needs fixing.

Credit: Jack Schofield for The Guardian, 7 March 2019.